Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and composing, and pursue a career in music?
I first discovered the piano at a friend’s birthday party when I was six years old. They had an upright piano in the living room, and that interesting large object immediately caught my attention as something that looked very interesting. Later, when most people were outside playing football, I remember climbing onto the piano stool and started just tinkering some notes, and realised that there was a connection between each note, and a kind of weird relationship I couldn’t quite describe – I started to slowly pick out tunes that were stored in my head from my even earlier years at nursery (tunes such as ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’). It took me a while to pick out full tunes, but I was immediately aware that some of the notes fitted in the tune as the ‘right’ notes in the right order, and some notes which didn’t, and thus were ‘wrong’. I also could somehow differentiate each note in terms of pitch by an instinct – later, I was told that this was perfect pitch. My friend’s mum was impressed, and later phoned up my own mother and told her that she didn’t know I was taking piano lessons, and wanted to know who my piano teacher was. My mother was shocked at all this, and was in confusion with pianos and piano teachers, since it’s something that never really cropped up into her life until that point! A few months later, my mum bought me my first piano (a new upright), and after playing around with the instrument, I began taking lessons.
My passion for composing music came around the same time when I picked up the piano, but it started out as improvisation – I always loved to sit at the piano and make up my own pieces and remembered having tremendous fun! When I was about eight, someone told me that it might be a good idea to start learning to write ideas and improvisations down. A music student, who was a friend of my dad’s, came round to our house and recommended we get a music notation software. I began to play around with that, and would spend hours playing on there and experimenting with different instruments, sounds and styles. I would sometimes perform them to friends and family, and got great fulfilment out of that. However, I didn’t have formal tuition until secondary school, which was a place where I had the chance to open myself up to even more kinds of styles, and refine my composition techniques as well as learning new ones – there was the beginning of my life-long search to find my own compositional voice, integrity, and individuality
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My parents and my teachers – they have been very supportive with my musical passion ever since the beginning, and have always been there for me. I feel very lucky indeed.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
For me, the most difficult thing about playing music is not technique – rather, it’s finding the most musical, communicative, faithful, fresh, authentic way of interpreting music, that is true to yourself and to the composer. One of my old piano teachers always emphasised about making the music sound as natural as possible. The process of learning and performing a piece is a deeply fulfilling, but never-ending journey to find the real spirit, character, depth, and true understanding of the piece in terms of its theme and stylistic context, and then, it’s the question of how to convey all that into the interpretation, bearing in mind that, if you’re practicing the right way, every time you work on a piece, you discover something new. The greatest pianists all manage to somehow achieve this – it’s this very essence on how they express and communicate the music that can give audiences goosebumps, move them to tears, or drop their jaws and think ‘wow’. Music is one of the few things in the world that, when unleashed to its full potential, has the power to do just that – to summarise, the biggest challenge for me in music is making music! I am somewhat relieved that this process is never leisurely for me – it’s what motivates me to carry on, and is one of the soul reasons why I love music so much.
As for composition, it’s always a flow of inspiration which leads to many good ideas forming a piece to be written down – the challenge for me, however, is overcoming the self-doubt that usually follows immediately after this. I’m always questioning myself about every minuscule idea I put to paper, and then forgetting about it and continue to do what I’m currently doing. The end result has mainly been positive and gratifying for me. Of course, there’s always the challenge of rehearsing the piece with the player(s), but it’s always the feeling that you want your next piece you write to be somewhat even better than your previous piece that drives me forward, and makes me continue!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I always try to put in the same effort and concentration into each performance and recording I do. I am however, pleased with my debut album for Orchid Classics, which will be released in September this year!
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I always strive to try and bring the same amount of justice to whatever it is I’m playing – I try to convince myself that I’m fully versatile with all kinds of works and styles.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It always varies, and usually depends on my mood and my taste at that particularly time. I strive for a kind of variety, and try to include at least one of my own compositions.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
For me, every single venue, be it large or small, has its own uniqueness and story. I try to look for the best in every venue I play, and what matters for me is how to convey the music in the best way that suits whatever venue I’m in at the time. Also, the warm receptive and enthusiastic audience matters to me more than the venue. I do, however, love venues that are architecturally stimulating.
You are also a composer…. Which musicians/composers have had a significant influence on your composing?
Practically everyone! I’m influenced by such a wide range of genres, styles and composers, that I can think of very few composers and styles I don’t like. But sometimes, I even LIKE listening to a piece just because I DON’T like it, as I find it challenging to digest in someway, which leaves me wanting more. Music that I don’t like is like a puzzle for me – I would spend time listening to it in secret to try and ‘decipher its puzzle’. I’m a big like a vacuum cleaner – everything somehow makes their way into me creative thought-process. This is also why I sometimes find it dangerous to ‘open my doors’ too wide – sometimes I get an ‘influence overload’, which can then lead to the self-doubt I was talking about earlier on. But yet, that’s also a good thing, as it expands my knowledge and makes a mark on the inspiration in my subconscious – it’s a bit of a paradox!
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I’ve always had a natural affinity to write in any style/genre required or thrown at me. I’ve enjoyed writing filmic music, pop songs, folk music pastiches, and hope to write musicals and film scores as well in the future. I have done lots of arrangements of Chinese folk songs and other well-known tunes – usually all through improvisation.
Although, for my concert music, I don’t think my style has settled down firmly yet – it’s continuing to evolve. I’ve always been more fascinated by the inspiration and concept behind a piece, and the musical ideas and how they are used, and that’s why I infrequently think about my music as being ‘tonal’ or ‘atonal’ or not. Having said that, a few years ago, I was enjoying writing music that ended up being almost inadvertently atonal or mixed tonal music, but now it’s starting to edge towards the more tonal side. I’m starting to think there is so much I can experiment and play around new ways to use tonality, and combining them both. Some may say that this is unfortunate, but I personally feel very lucky to be living in a time with so many musical languages at our disposal, and we can write whatever we want – like a painter having lots of different types of paintbrush. I feel lucky to be fluent in so many ‘musical languages’
How do you work (as a composer)?
I’m always improvising and recording myself to help generate ideas. I usually compose with pen and paper, and then put it into a notation programme. I now have several good ideas for pieces I want to write, but haven’t started yet, because I’m currently writing another piece. I try not to write several pieces at once, as I feel it clogs up my mind.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Again too many to list here! I’d feel guilty mentioning someone with the worry of missing someone else out! Although there’s never really been a pianist or composer that I love 100% of everything he/she plays/writes – it’s always a few or more pieces that are my favourite interpretation, or a particular piece by a particular composer that I really love, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I love all other pieces written/played by him/her.
That said, pianists include Argerich, Sokolov, Zimmerman, Horowitz, Hoffman and Cortot to name just a very few. Apart from the great composers of the past eras, such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bartok, Szymanowski, Stravinsky etc., more recent composers include Arvo Part, Gorecki, Oliver Knussen, James MacMillan, John Adams and many more. Film and musical composers include John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and many more
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I have a few, but from the recent period, I won’t forget performing a solo piano tour in Portland, USA, and as an encore, I offered to do an improvisation on the spot – I’d ask for any member of audience to either come onstage to the piano and play any random notes (which I will base the improvisation on) and any style/composer – this rather intellectual member in the audience shouted ‘how about a piece using only notes G and F#, in the style of Weber and Oscar Peterson’! I accepted the challenge – turns out the audience liked it very much, and they gave me a very warm reception.
Here is an improvisation I did on a famous musical motif from ‘The Hunger Games’ in an Impressionist style: http://sg.abrsm.org/en/about-abrsm/abrsm-blog/article/my-musical-journey/791/
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
For me, as clichéd is it might sound, it’s about being able to see between the notes of what the composer wrote to really convey a performance that is special, memorable, moving and deeply musical. For aspiring composers, it’s important to open up your mind to as many different kinds of music as possible. Always strive to do everything in music to the very best of your ability and not to compromise your quality. Above all, enjoy it, cherish it, and allow music to take over your life!
What is your present state of mind?
Happy and contemplative.
Yuanfan Yang’s debut disc of music by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Philip Cashian and his own compositions is available now on the Orchid Classics label
Born in Edinburgh, Yuanfan began learning the piano when he was 6, passed Grade 8 with Distinction at the age of 8 and achieved a Diploma of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (DipABRSM) when he was 10. He was awarded the AMusTCL Diploma in Music Theory with Distinction in 2015, and is a Scholar of the Drake Calleja Trust.
Yuanfan has won numerous piano competitions. He has won 1st Prize at the Cleveland International Young Artists Piano Competition in the USA in 2015, and 1st Prize of the 4th International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Weimar, Germany in 2014, with which he was awarded the Special Prize for Best Interpretation of a Classical Sonata, the Special Prize for Best Interpretation of Works by Liszt, the Special Prize for Best Composition and Improvisation, the Junior Jury Prize, and the European Union of Music Competitions for Youth (EMCY) Prize for Most Outstanding Contestant. In 2013 he won the 3rd Prize in the Minnesota International E-Piano Competition. He has also won 1st Prizes in the 2010 RNCM James Mottram International Piano Competition (under 19), and the 2009 Manchester International Piano Concerto Competition for Young Pianists (age 16 and under). Yuanfan is also a fluent sight-reader, having been the champion of the ongoing Michael Abraham Sight-Reading Award six years in a row, ever since he joined Chetham’s. He has also won 1st Prizes in the UK Liszt Society International Piano Prize 2015, the Royal Academy of Music’s Sterndale Bennett Prize 2015, and the 9th Grand Prix Interlaken Classics International Piano Competition 2016. He was the Keyboard Category Winner and a Grand Finalist of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition 2012, and won both category and overall prizes at the European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA) UK Piano Competition 2010. Most recently, as the youngest participant and top eight semi-finalist in the Cleveland International Piano Competition 2016, Yuanfan’s performances earned him the Special AAF (Alink Argerich Foundation) Prize.
Yuanfan has performed for many eminent music societies, festivals and key events throughout Britain, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and the US, and has performed concertos by Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Grieg, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky with many eminent conductors and leading orchestras including the Northern Sinfonia, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Romanian Radio National Symphony Orchestra, the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra, the Canton Symphony Orchestra in Cleveland, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Leeds Sinfonia, and the Manchester Camerata.
Yuanfan is also a versatile composer and an accomplished improviser. His ‘Fantasy in G’ for piano was broadcast on BBC Two in 2007 and 2008, and his arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’ was shown on BBC Four in 2010. His piano composition ‘Waves’ won the Overall Award in the European Piano Teachers Association UK Composition Competition 2011. This piece also won Highly-Commended in the BBC Proms Young Composers Competition 2011. His ‘Haunted Bell’ won first prize in the Junior Group of the Golden Key International Piano Composition Competition in 2012, and it was broadcast on BBC Four and BBC Radio Three. He was a finalist in the National Centre for Early Music Composers’ Award 2013, where his piece ‘Crushed Suites’ was premiered and recorded by the leading early music ensemble Florilegium. In September 2014, Yuanfan’s new Piano Concerto – ‘The Wilderness’, scored for solo piano and full symphony orchestra, was premiered in Qianjiang, China; the concerto was performed again at Wuhan University as part of his China tour in November 2014, and it had its UK premiere with the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra in June 2015 – all the performances were enthusiastically received with critical acclaim from the press and audience. This concerto will be performed in 2017 at the Beijing Concert Hall with the Beijing National Theatre and Dance Orchestra.
Yuanfan has recently recorded his debut album for Orchid Classics, which is due for international release in mid-2017.